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World War II Enemies Forge a Mutual Peace

Friendship: One's family perished at Auschwitz; the other's father was a Nazi officer. In writing a book together, they have put their past to rest.

May 20, 2001|MICHELLE LOCKE | ASSOCIATED PRESS

BERKELEY — As men who grew up in wartime Europe, it's not surprising that Bernie Rosner and Fritz Tubach became friends when they met in America.

Except for this:

Rosner was the only member of his family to survive Auschwitz. Tubach is the son of a Nazi officer.

It turned out that the two survivors from opposite sides of the Holocaust had something in common--a determination to chase down their demons together.

"I don't think I did any significant crying about the past for 50 years until I met Fritz," says Rosner.

For Tubach, writing in their joint memoir, "An Uncommon Friendship," published this month, it came down to this: "I simply refused to accept the fact that the deadly barbed wire erected by Adolf Hitler . . . would forever mark us off from one another."

Rosner's story began in 1932 in the Hungarian village of Tab. The son of Orthodox Jews, Rosner, whose given first name is Bernat, remembers an early life that revolved around home, school and synagogue.

Frederic "Fritz" Tubach had a bit more cosmopolitan start; he was born in San Francisco, where his father was a movie theater violinist. But when Fritz was 3, the family moved back to the German village of its roots. The year was 1933, and Hitler had just come to power.

At first, the evil spreading across Europe cast a distant shadow.

Rosner remembers Jewish kids getting beat up, but he also remembers Jewish families practicing a form of musical resistance by singing Yiddish ditties belittling their persecutors.

Tubach remembers Kristallnacht, the "Night of Broken Glass" in November 1938 when synagogues and Jewish homes and businesses across Germany were attacked in a Nazi-orchestrated campaign.

People were aware that Jews were being "reallocated" to the east, but they were even more aware that it was dangerous to talk about it, he says. "There was a kind of feeling that some terrible things may be happening there."

Terrible things were happening.

The Holocaust reached Rosner in the spring of 1944 when fascists took over the Hungarian government.

Jews were forbidden to travel, forced to wear identifying yellow stars and ordered to move into a section of the village designated the Jewish ghetto.

(A fleet-footed 12-year-old, Rosner was chosen to run messages across ghetto lines. Once, he came across a group of well-dressed Nazi officers. One patted him on the head, saying, "Kleiner bube"--"Little boy." Later, Rosner recognized him in a newspaper photograph: Adolf Eichmann, a chief architect of the Holocaust.)

In July 1944, the Jews of Tab were rounded up and pushed into cattle cars for the four-day journey to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

On their arrival, Rosner's father disappeared almost immediately. Men and women were separated, ostensibly for showers and delousing. His mother tried to keep her two boys, Bernie and 10-year-old Alexander, with her, but 12-year-old Bernie didn't want to shower with the women. Lined up with the men, the two boys reached two officers who were dividing the column into two groups, left and right. Alexander was ordered to go to the left; Bernie started to follow him, remembering his mother's instructions to look after his little brother. Guards watched him take a few steps and shoved him to the right --the group designated for slave labor.

It was only gradually that Rosner came to understand that of his entire family--brother, father, mother, uncles, aunts--only he was left alive.

For Tubach, war meant being drafted into the Jungvolk, the organization for boys too young to join Hitler Youth. A rebellious youth, he once stuffed a small U.S. flag beneath his Nazi brownshirt.

As it turned out, Tubach didn't make it to Hitler Youth. His anti-Nazi stepmother bravely stood against it. At the time, Tubach was angry; today, he's grateful.

His father, meanwhile, was serving as a counterintelligence officer in the British Channel Islands. The elder Tubach had called the violence of Kristallnacht "stupid." Tubach says his father once admitted to having sent an English civilian to "a camp in Germany," but denied all knowledge of the Holocaust, calling it "the most terrible crime."

There were no such ambiguities for Rosner; every day was a visceral struggle with death.

Once, when he realized he was getting left behind with the old and sick, he tried to jump over a wall to join another group. A guard pinned him to the wall, but then shrugged his shoulders and let him go.

Transferred to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, Rosner was at one point put to work in the camp quarry. For a day, the boy struggled up and down the uneven stone steps, watching as half a dozen men dropped dead of exhaustion or were pushed to their deaths, still clutching the heavy stones. (Telling the story to his friend Tubach for their book 50 years later, Rosner would ask: "Why didn't they let go of the rocks?") The quarry was a death sentence, but after that first day he was reassigned to kitchen work.

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